There are an estimated 395,000 problem gamblers in the UK, with a further 1.8 million people ‘at risk’. The effects can have devastating consequences on people and their families, including financial loss, relationship breakdowns, criminality and suicide.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Gambling Commission have failed to adequately protect consumers at a time of considerable change in the sector, as gambling increasingly moves online and new games become popular. The collection of evidence has been patchy and behind the curve as the nature of gambling has changed. The pace of change to ensure effective regulation has been slow and the penalties on the companies which do not effectively tackle problem gambling are weak.
More unacceptable is that it is not possible to judge the efficiency of the Gambling Commission against its stated objectives. The Department and the Commission have an unacceptably weak understanding of the impact gambling harms has on people, there is a lack of either detailed measurable targets for reducing levels of harm or an understanding of the impact of any regulatory action, and both have lagged behind developments in the industry, public attitudes and even Parliamentary efforts. Gambling consumers rely on regulation to protect them from harm, including operators that may not always act in the consumers’ best interest. There is a sense of complacency from the department in tackling this issue.
The Gambling Commission, as regulator, must be far quicker at responding to problems and updating licence conditions to protect potentially vulnerable consumers. It must also be more proactive in influencing the industry to treat consumers better, particularly where it has identified potential problems such as during the Covid-19 lockdown. To do this, it needs to radically improve the data and insight it collects to know what is going wrong for consumers and develop better information on its own performance to determine whether it is being effective or not. At present, it has no key performance indicators and the departmental leadership lacks urgency to address this. The Commission’s ability to protect consumers, particularly children and vulnerable adults, is also fundamentally constrained by inflexible funding and an outdated legal and regulatory framework that can reduce regulatory funding the larger the major gambling firms get. Individuals cannot seek redress for breaches of the Commission’s Social Responsibility Code of Practice through the regulatory system. The government’s manifesto commitment to a review of the Gambling Act is an opportunity to urgently consider not only how these constraints can best be addressed, but also to look more broadly at how efficient and effective regulation of this rapidly growing industry can be better implemented to achieve the stated aims of the Commission and the Department in protecting the vulnerable, ensuring fair play, and reducing criminality.
Published: 28 June 2020